Archive for February, 2010

There is a secret place called Hartsop. Most people are aware of it only as a signpost glimpsed briefly in passing on the A592,  between the Kirkstone pass and the obligatory tourist halt of Glenridding. It’s better known to hill-walkers, there being a small car-park here at the far end of a tortuous little lane, and valuable as a starting point for exploring the fells in this area. The road into Hartsop is narrow and leads nowhere, which has perhaps helped to spare the village the more usual fate of such places, and thus far it remains entirely unspoiled by the trinket shops and the other dubious trappings of the tourist trade.

There are an increasing number of holiday rentals here, quaint 17th cottages restored to a state of modern countryfied chic  but it is still a place where people live, and farm. Thankfully there are as yet no “leisure facilities” of any kind. The only facilities here are the stunning scenery, the fells, the lakes, the taste of the air and the sound of running water. If your thing is walking, climbing, fishing, or writing, Harstop is the place for you.

I’ve been exploring the Lakes since I was a teenager and old enough to drive up here in my first old banger – a rickety, rusty old Honda N600. There’s hardly a fell I’ve not stood on, and barely a ridge I’ve not traversed by now. I love the Lake District’s compact diversity,  and I’ve stayed in many of its more famous towns, but I keep coming back to Hartsop. There is for me something uniquely beautiful about it, about the valley it nestles in, the valleys that branch off it, and of course the fells that dominate it.

Alfred Wainwright, our most famous authority on the Lake District once described Hartsop Dodd, the most prominent protuberance hereabouts as resembling a child’s drawing of a hill – a great bell-shaped dome of a thing – not quite real, not quite believable. I think that sums up the charm of the area.There is something of fairy land about it. It’s no doubt a hard place to live in winter, as the shattered state of the A592 this February would suggest, but it’s become for me a place of dreaming.

I spent the weekend here at the beginning of February. The events of my daily life ebb and flow, the trivialities that define my outer world change, all be it in trivial ways, grow old and flimsy and break off into new directions. But Hartsop changes slowly, rendering the impression of a place outside of time for me. I come here as often as I can, to think, and to breathe.

It was here I wrote Ghost Horses, back in 2007 – basically a poem about being unable to write – something of a contradiction, I know, because I was obviously writing as I wrote it. But the timelessness of this place blurs memory and 2007 could easily have been 2010. I blink, years pass, I’m older, my children are older,… but Hartsop remains the same.

The snow has cleared from the lowland ares of the UK now but the hard weather continues on the fells, where snow still lies above 2500 feet. Local intelligence informs me walkers have been caught out ill-equipped for snow and ice. It seems fresh generations are forever re-learning the lessons of their fathers, still coming to grief on Helvellyn’s Striding, and Swirral Edge, still falling through cornices, and getting swept away by avalanches.

Not for me the High Fells in this weather. Indeed the High fells are becoming strangers to me now even in the summer months. I can remember every walk I’ve ever done here, and there’s a sharpness about them, as if the memory was cast in a cleaner stone, to emerge jewel like and sparkling with the intensity of a rare emotion. I smell the air. I taste the waters of the beck, feel the ache in my legs as I climb. Striding Edge, hot and dusty under the sun of a summer’s Sunday. Hartsop Dodd, lush and green with Brother’s Water sparkling below, the massive beacon on Thornthwaite Crag,…

Then I blink free, amazed I’ve been retracing steps from twenty years ago, and that the last peaks I bagged here were the Angletarn Pikes in 2006.

Ghost Horses

What makes me think the words will come today?
That by some magic not yet understood,
This place can somehow show to me the way,
So words might then pour freely from above?
Or well up from that secret place inside,
From whence all thoughts come clear and ready made,
To slide into the puzzle of my mind:
A sense of something learned, of distance gained.
But now the mist obscures the mountainside,
And idly seeks the hollows of the vale:
Ghost horses on whose backs my lost thoughts ride,
Too lame to hunt and yet afraid to fail.
A greyness takes the shape of what I knew:
Fair hills of hope, all lost to memory,
Days of sweet grass and glory all too few,
So I am rendered blind to what I see.
Snow falls like ashen moths into the mud,
While making no impression on the land.
They are my thoughts those moths and do no good,
Quite useless in their flight to understand,
What makes me think there’s any point to me.
But still I sit with fingers lightly poised,
O’er keys worn smooth from times words came with ease,
Words whose faint traces now bring little joy.
But no wise creature hunts on days like these,
So I must turn within and seek the warm,
And stir the glowing embers of my dreams,
In whose soft whispers all is granted form.

February 2007

Michael Graeme

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